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"Wittgensteinian Political Quietism" - Kevin Cahill (University of Bergen)

Kevin Cahill
Peabody Hall, Room 115

If asked about Wittgenstein’s views on ethics, many philosophers unfamiliar with the details of the history of analytic philosophy would likely attribute to him some form of emotivism, according to which ethical statements are non-verifiable and therefore nonsensical. This is in large part due to the influence of A.J. Ayer’s 1935 Language, Truth, and Logic which purported to speak authoritatively on the positions Ayer had gleaned from the Vienna Circle’s discussions of Wittgenstein’s views in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus from 1921. Both in the Tractatus and in a 1929 lecture on ethics he gave in Cambridge, Wittgenstein did indeed say things that sound like emotivism. As he never spoke officially on the topic of ethics again, this impression remained fixed in many philosophical circles. This impression may have been strengthened by the fact that two leading mid-century emotivists, C.L. Stevenson and R.M. Hare, were students of Wittgenstein. But even though he never accepted that ethical statements were truth-evaluable, Wittgenstein was neither an emotivist nor a verificationist: his views on meta-ethics had less to do with epistemology than with his views on language. And his views on language changed radically between the time when he wrote the Tractatus and his more mature thought of the mid-1930s. In this later period, he emphasized the role of the contextual use of language for an understanding of meaning instead of an earlier emphasis on truth-grounds. What counts is the context of various types of discourse in which human beings use language, what Wittgenstein came to refer to as “language games.”

So much for ethics. What about politics? Although Wittgenstein said nothing philosophical about politics, some Wittgenstein scholars have recently tried to find support in his work for certain political views. But this risks disregarding the anti-metaphysical thrust of his later work. He believed that the assumption that any form of discourse, from atomic physics to mathematics, to history, to ethics and politics, requires a philosophical foundation is simply confused. Whatever Wittgenstein’s personal views on politics may have been, he saw it as importantly distinct from his work in philosophy. To paraphrase Rawls: Politics for Wittgenstein was political, not metaphysical.

Kevin Cahill is from San Francisco. He received his first B.A. in Biochemistry from U.C. Berkeley, his second B.A. in Philosophy from San Francisco State, and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Virginia. Since 2001 he has lived in Bergen, Norway, where he is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bergen. Most of his earlier work focused on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. For the last 10 years or so he has also devoted considerable time to the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. His publications include “The Fate of Wonder: Wittgenstein’s Critique of Metaphysics and Modernity” (Columbia 2011) and “Towards a Philosophical Anthropology of Culture: Naturalism, Relativism, and Skepticism” (Routledge 2021).


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